Book Summary: Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar


Title: The Art of Choosing
Author: Sheena Iyengar
Publisher: Twelve
ISBN-10: 0446504114
ISBN-13: 978-0446504119
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It doesn’t what we are born with. One may be born in a mansion or in a slum. One may be born with perfectly working body parts or with disabilities. One may be born with supportive parents or with ones who judge and discourage you every day in your life. In the end, you get to choose how you live and you get to choose how your life should be in the future. You also get to choose how to feel about the circumstances you are in. Your choices are perhaps the most important things you do in your life. They have put you where you are today.

In the book ‘Art of choosing’, Sheena Iyengar, an Indian-origin psychology major with impaired vision, walks us through the several aspects of recognising your choices and how different situations make you choose in different ways.

Geography affects choices

Sheena highlights an important influence of geography on your choices. Being a member of the Indian community in the United States, she is able to look at how both Anglo-Americans and Asian-Americans choose different things. People of western origin are more individualistic. They like their choices to be autonomous, while not necessarily complying with the choices of others in their community. They see themselves as independent units in the society.

Asians make choices that are seen as good and acceptable within their community. For them, feeling of belongingness while looking good and being accepted within their community matters more. They see themselves as parts of a closely knit group who look out for each other.

Sheena goes on to remind us that choice is a complex matter and can mean different things to different communities. Rather than question people’s choices and judge them for it, it is important to recognise that the motivation behind different choices is different for everyone based on nationality, religion, culture, gender and age.

What is perceived as freedom?

While getting to choose for ourselves is a type of freedom, it is not the only thing referred to as freedom by everyone. For example, in capitalistic countries, freedom starts where the authorities step back and allow the markets to play out. Availability of products and their prices are completely determined by the market. Market chooses what it likes and what should be removed. Market determines the price based on supply and demand. While individuals have the freedom to choose from a wide range of products and services, his/her choices increase with the amount of wealth he/she possesses. But that also means that as the demand for something goes up substantially, the rich will pay more to acquire them, thus leaving the poor in the lurch. Ultimately, the poor cannot afford much and will have few choices to make or none at all.

In contrast, socialistic countries have the government taking part in every economic decision, even owning products and services. They make sure that prices are affordable for everyone. They offer heavy subsidies and make up for the losses through heavy taxation. While this stifles rapid growth, innovation, individual brilliance and effort, it also makes sure that the basic needs are available to everyone.

Are you unique or just like everyone else?

People like more choices and love to exert control over what they get to choose just for the illusion that they are different from everyone else. But in reality, most people choose exactly what others have chosen. This is evident from industries such as fashion, where more popular designs are chosen more often. The more viral a design becomes, the more it is chosen by new buyers at the expense of  the obscurely chosen ones.

E.g. if you are given a choice between black, brown and flourescent green jackets, you may discard the last one completely since it will usually be perceived as not combining well with your other clothes. While you believe that you have a choice and that you have picked one that suits your style, you have actually picked what many others already picked, i.e. ‘safe’ options like black or brown, while rejecting flourescent green, which would have made you truly unique.  It’s just that one doesn’t usually wear jackets that are too differently coloured and you are afraid to stand out.

Priya, my wife, sums this up in a nice phrase called ‘odd, but not unique’. 3 and 5 are numbers that are odd, but not unique, whereas 1 is a number that is both odd and unique. You don’t want to be that ONE who is odd and unique. You’d rather be part of a group of 3 to 5 people that the majority sees as odd, but you still fit in with a group who are just like you and have common interests to share.

Choices may be impulsive

Making a conscious choice requires a lot of reflection and deliberate thought. But the brain likes to conserve energy. When possible, it uses a set of guidelines that look like rules of thumb, but are actually shortcuts applied by the brain based on available data, so that it can avoid the hard work of deliberate thought. These shortcuts are called heuristics. Despite meaning well, heuristics often get in your way of making informed or optimal choices.

E.g. we often flock to a restaurant that has more people than to one that has fewer. The heuristic behind this choice says that if there are more people in one restaurant, it must be better. It is a mental shortcut to avoid making a decision while you are already hungry. However it’s possible that you may enjoy the food better at the emptier restaurant.

Choice overwhelm

It is easier to choose from three choices than from ten. Our mind can process the evaluation of lesser choices, but can get overwhelmed by abundance. But people still crave for more choice than less, because more gives the illusion of abundance.

Too many choices are overwhelming. Source:

In a supermarket, it is common to see 20 varieties of toothpaste and 40 varieties of dips, ketchups and side dishes. When overwhelmed, the mind stops evaluated the items for their merits and looks for ways to whittle down the number of choices, the most common being categorising and sorting by price and then picking the cheapest one.

Choice in a field requiring expertise

Some fields require training, practice and expertise to make the right choices. For the untrained, making such choices is hard. Their choice usually ends up sub-optimal. It is in the best interest of everyone to offer little or no choice to such people, but simply offer them a product or service with defaults. Choices should be kept open for experts though.

Laptops are fairly new to India. The computer economy a decade ago was driven by assembled computers, where people were often tasked with picking their choice of hardware, such as the hard disk, processor, RAM, etc. Since people had no expertise in the field, they used to pick options that were cheaper or more popular. In the end, they’d have a cheap, but a sluggish and outdated computer trying to run the latest operating system.

With laptops, the decision of the hardware combination is made by the manufacturer. People have been happily using laptops for more than a decade now and no one is going back to assembled computers anywhere. But assembled computers do exist for the experts who want a fine-grained choice and the ability to swap old parts for new ones every few months.

Difficult choices

Choices such as pulling the plug on a comatose patient or institutionalising a juvenile son can be traumatically hard. In such cases, there are three things that can happen.

a. Those in authority make the decision, execute it and tell the affected person about it.

b. Those in authority present the choices to the person who’ll be affected and let them decide, without offering personal suggestions or biases.

c. Those in authority present the choices, state their own preference and then nudge the affected person to decide.

Study after study show that those caught in situation b were more traumatised after the event, because they felt the guilt of having directly influenced the difficult outcome. Those is situation ‘a’ were at peace since the decision was not theirs. Those in situation ‘c’ were at peace too despite having made the decision themselves. In this case, this was because they believed that they had done what was best as prescribed by an experience authority.

The red button syndrome

Some choices have adverse outcomes. It is better that people don’t know about those choices at all. However even the worst choices will find their way to people, whether we like it or not. One such choice is addictive smoking. In a utopian world, smoking as a choice shouldn’t exist. But we are stuck wit it.

The usual reaction is to ban those choices. But some personalities suffer from what we call the ‘red button syndrome’, which is the impulse to rebel, to break the rules and to go against any restrictions, either boldly or through creative ways. E.g. some people boldly smoke in public to make a rebellious statement, whereas some people take to alternatives such as vaping. The name ‘red button syndrome’ is so named because some personalities feel forced to press a red button which has a warning ‘Do not press’.

Red button syndrome. Source:

An outright ban will not work for such people, because they feel the need to exercise their choice even if the outcome is adverse. The enforcers need to get creative about it, such as heavily tax cigarettes so that the smokers need to think twice before lighting up.


Choice and decision are complex processes. To master them takes a lot of practice. So much that it is actually an art. That is why Sheena calls it the ‘Art of Choosing’.

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Harikrishna Natrajan

Unleashing life's full potential

One thought on “Book Summary: Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar”

  1. Explains why i always ended with a awful tasting SUB earlier. Having no knowledge on the ingredients but with the enthusiasm to get more for the same money, I ended up choosing multiple contradictory sauces which ruined the whole SUB 😛 choice without the knowledge of knowing what you are choosing almost always produce a bad outcome.

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